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August 22, 2014

THE WHIPAROUND: Unquantifiable

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AUBURN | I'm tired of hearing about luck.

You are, too.

We know better. We've dissected the 'Kick Six' from every conceivable angle -- the blocks that preserved just enough space for Chris Davis to balance along the sideline, Jonathon Mincy doing what Alabama couldn't do (make a tackle), Cassanova McKinzy leaping into the crowd like it's a Rage Against The Machine gig, Nick Saban plunging that tongue firmly into his cheek.

He knows what happened. A great football coach had just been outfoxed by another great coach on a big stage before a captivated, national audience. That wasn't a look of anger; it was a look of embarrassment, concession.

So why isn't Gus Malzahn's achievement seen for what it is?

Much of the national chatter regarding Auburn's ability to win big in 2014 centers around this notion that the Tigers lucked their way into Pasadena. A team that lucky, many analysts believe, is due for some kind of correction toward the statistical norm.

Luck fades. And so will Auburn, they say.

There is another subset of people who believe that Malzahn's offense is a complicated math equation that soon will be solved -- just like the frustrating peg board game at Cracker Barrel.

(Pro tip: Never start with a corner open.)

Or that some enterprising guy like Dan Mullen will discover that Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right B, A, Start magically will turn Nick Marshall and Sammie Coates into pumpkins.

Everyone, it seems, has a reason to doubt Auburn.

It occurred to me the other day why this keeps happening. It's the same reason Tommy Tuberville, during his search for an offensive coordinator in December 2007, didn't even bother to interview Malzahn for a job that went to Tony Franklin.

High school.

All this skepticism is rooted in the fact that Malzahn spent several years coaching high school football. I believe that. Few college coaches spend more than token time early in their careers coaching high school ball. They rise above it. They're too good to be stuck at that level, so they move up to college ball.

Football is static in that way. High school guys typically stay in high school. College guys typically stay in college. Pro guys typically stay in the NFL. There are a few coaches like Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly and Rich Bisaccia and Tracy Rocker who transfer between levels, sure, but they're exceptions.

And that's the real issue here.

Since Malzahn is so upwardly mobile and few people have made this transition, there must be some other reason for his success. Surely it can't be his coaching acumen, right? If he's so good, why was he coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High on his 40th birthday?

People evolve in different ways on different schedules.

Malzahn didn't want to be an assistant during his 20s or 30s. He craved control. He craves it today. If he's associated with something, Malzahn believes it should live up to his standards.

He's just that way.

Yet there was no way ($1 to Gerry Faust and Todd Dodge) to make a successful jump from high school head coach to college head coach. So Malzahn took the job at Arkansas in 2006, which was a disaster of someone else's making, and bounced to Tulsa a year later. He ended up at Auburn in 2009 and you know the rest.

He transformed himself quickly, at least by college standards, by going from his first college gig to Arkansas State head coach in six years. Malzahn rose quickly for reasons that aren't mysterious to Auburn people: He demands perfection, he's always looking for advantages, he sizes up players accurately and has exquisite command of an innovative offense.

This isn't smoke and mirrors. And it's not luck.

It's about a guy who took a non-traditional journey to national relevance. He created his own path. Some people cannot seem to grasp that concept, which is odd considering American society perpetually reinforces the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Malzahn is going to change a lot of minds, though.

He already has to some degree. Auburn's run from pre-season afterthought to the brink of a national title in 2013 convinced shrewd observers that, yes, Malzahn has some real ability.

It seems like everyone is expecting Auburn to fall back to Earth this season. Some attribute it to a normalized distribution of luck. Others say this offensive system will lose its edge or personnel shortcomings will create new problems Malzahn won't be able to mitigate.

I look at this roster and I see a lot of playmakers.

I look at this coach and I see a guy who doesn't fail very often. He's won 20 of his last 22 games as a head coach, which is even more impressive considering he was a first-year guy at Arkansas State in 2012 and Auburn in 2013.

These Tigers are acclimated to Malzahn's vision. They know perfection is the standard and they're inching closer every day.

So let the experts create new alibis to explain away their inability to quantify Malzahn's rise. Let their confusion fester.

Auburn has a conference title to defend.



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